On this day in 1844, the western explorer John C. Fremont arrives at the shores of the Great Salt Lake, one of the many areas he will map for the lasting benefit of a westward-moving nation.
When Fremont reached the strange saltwater inland lake (a remnant of the much larger prehistoric Lake Bonneville), he was not the first Euro-American to view its shores. As early as the 1820s, fur trappers had returned to the East with tales of a bizarre salt lake where no fish swam, and the French explorer Benjamin Bonneville was the first to map the lake’s outlines in 1837. But for the far-ranging John C. Fremont, the Great Salt Lake was only one small part of a much wider journey of discovery and mapping.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1813, Fremont began honing his skills as an explorer and mapmaker in his early twenties. His first major expedition was an 1842 survey of the Platte River for the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers. More skilled in cartography and science than trailblazing and wilderness survival, Fremont relied heavily on the abilities of men like Kit Carson as guides and advisers.
Fremont reached the Great Salt Lake during his second expedition. His 14 months of western rambling also took him across the Sierra Nevada and resulted in the first comprehensive map of the Great Basin, the region between the Wasatch and the Sierra Nevada mountains where water drains to neither the Pacific nor the Atlantic. After Fremont’s Great Basin map was published, one commentator noted, it “changed the entire picture of the West.” It also made Fremont a national hero. Along with charts resulting from three further expeditions, Fremont’s maps became indispensable guides to thousands of overland immigrants heading westward to begin new lives. He died of peritonitis in New York City on July 13, 1890.